By Cody Cottier, Jackson Hole News&Guide Via Wyoming News Exchange
JACKSON — The owners of The Virginian plan to redevelop the property into what could be the largest housing project in Jackson’s history, potentially giving an unprecedented boost to housing stock. All the commercial buildings — the iconic hotel, saloon and restaurant — will remain, but they’ll be joined by perhaps hundreds of units of rental housing. Bill Collins, a planning consultant on the project, declined to give an estimate with so many variables still undetermined, but the 13-acre parcel is zoned for the highest density.
“We are hoping to do something very good for the community,” he said. “We want to make a substantial contribution to housing for people who work here.”
A project of such magnitude faces a long road of planning and public review, and the developers have just begun to run it by town officials. But if they can pull it off, and it’s a fit for the local workforce, it would put a colossal dent in the valley’s shortage of affordable housing.
Jackson Town Councilor Jonathan Schechter said that compared to some housing efforts — for example, the recent “quibbling” over whether to build 12 or 16 units in a controversial project on West Kelly Avenue — something on this scale “does have the potential to really change things, at least in the short- to medium-term.”
But Schechter added that he’s not getting too attached to the idea, at least until the developers formally introduce it to the town.
“Proposals come and go and proposals get modified,” he said. “It’s awfully early days to sit here and have a strong opinion about it.”
Councilor Arne Jorgensen called the project “an amazing opportunity,” with the potential to all at once build a major chunk of the 1,800 units of housing slated to be absorbed into the town, according to the 2012 Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan. The plan aims to prevent sprawl in outlying areas of the county. But Jorgensen doesn’t want it to overshadow the community’s other housing strategies.
“I want to be careful that we don’t fall into that trap,” he said. “This will make a huge impact, absolutely. But we can’t take our eye off the ball of staying focused on housing.”
As for the location, by all accounts it seems ideal, or at least less fraught than many alternatives for massive projects, like Hog Island, South Park and the rodeo grounds. With so much baggage attached to building in rural areas and on cherished sites, a place like Virginian Lane could provide a smoother path to approval.
“There are very few large sites left in town for potential housing development,” town Planning Director Paul Anthony said. “This is one of them, and it’s arguably underutilized.”
In fact, he said, the town rezoned the site to NH1, the highest density zoning designation, because “we knew it might be a key redevelopment site.”
Most of the housing would land on the 5-acre RV park behind the hotel, which is unusable half the year. The other 8 acres, where the hotel sits, would also be redeveloped, but Collins said they would rebuild the hotel in a way that ensures they “maintain the character of The Virginian and not lose the history.” The remodel would use the space more efficiently and make room for more housing.
Virginian Lane offers easy access to transit and is within walking distance to grocery stores and other services. Importantly, Anthony noted, it also doesn’t have many neighbors who could be hurt by the creation of such dense housing; the West Kelly project spent months in limbo amid heated opposition from those who live nearby.
“When you look at the map and you look at the zoning, and look at the current uses and look at our need,” Anthony said, “this is a site that jumps out at you.”
Of course, much remains to be settled. As Collins put it, “we have far more questions than we have answers.” For example, the effect of the project on transportation and the overall character of the area need to be analyzed.
The final design will also depend largely on how the developers decide to balance parking with housing. Underground parking leaves room for far more housing, and Collins said they’re considering that approach, but it also greatly raises construction costs.